Thursday, December 20, 2012

Top Ten Poetry Books for your Holiday Wish List: A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York

For those of you who have not heard, poet Jake Adam York, 40, died Sunday.

If you have heard, you may have read (or written) Facebook comments or blog entries such as "Oh, no!" or "Too, too young!" Although true, I will not focus here on his untimely death. I will, however, eulogize Jake York in two ways that I can: 1) witness to his spirit of generosity to this very minor poet at our one and only meeting; and 2) recommend his work for those who do not know it--for if you do, it needs no other recommendation. First, his work.

I met Jake York at the Chicago AWP in 2009, shortly after A Murmuration of Starlings had won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award. He was on a panel with other poets the likes of Sean Nevin and Camille Dungy, as well as some fiction writers I, frankly, cannot remember. During his 10 minutes, I was taken with not only the poems he read, but the back story of the manuscript--"part of an ongoing project to elegize and memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone table of the Civil Rights Memorial that stands today outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama." In other words, York had set out to write a poem to tell the story of every single person listed on the memorial--all who had died fighting for civil rights.

A Murmuration of Starlings speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. Like Lamar Smith, 13 August 1955, Brookhaven, Mississippi:

No one sees him cross the courthouse lawn,
the lone black man in the election crowd,

and no one steps from the line and pulls a gun
then slips past the sheriff and the whole white town

and no one disappears into history
covered in blood and gunpowder sulphur

while the old man collapses in wreathes of smoke
and ballots wing in the billow of his fall.

Like Louis Allen, 31 January 1964, Liberty, Mississippi.

The ministers rise from empty plates
like the steam of chicken and greens

and puff into coats, into prayers, and then
the unlit streets, ready for tomorrow's march

or gathering or prayers, and then the dark
is beating "Hey niggers" though only their coats are black

and the night and everything so they cannot see
what's coming, what hits them, what feet, what pipes

at their ribs, who's saying "Now you know,
now you know what it's like to be a real nigger"

and no one can see what lands, what cracks
the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair,

what's nesting, what's beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes

Or like Jimmie Lee Jackson, for whom York dedicates his ten-page title poem, "A Murmuration of Starlings." I share the opening stanzas here, but not before I share the epigraph to the first poem of the book, "Shall Be Taught to Speak:"

"I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion."
--Henry IV, Part One

A Murmuration of Starlings

for Jimmie Lee Jackson
18-26 February 1965, Marion and Selma, Alabama

A cloud of starlings drifts from the river,

at first, a smudge on the sky
or the hospital window,

then more definite,

contracting then scattering
like pain.

Nuns ghost, white-robed

as night riders in the farm-edge pines
haunting the forest along the river,

like lilies on Cahaba's shoals.


Whenever he wakes someone else is there
just out of view

prayer drowned in the rasp of breath

a song like breaking glass.

Wings clench in the fluorescent tubes,
flutter of shadows

the state patrol colonel
darkening the bed

handcuffs on the rail,
a warrant for a tongue.

Then wings,
blow smoke

gathering somewhere
just out of view.


At the church just after dark

hymns, then the night march
across the square

to sing through the jailhouse window
and February to their brother

who can hear them in their pews,
hear them descend

to the waiting mayor and police chief,
state troopers who bullhorn them back.

When the reverend kneels to pray,
one patrolman swings his club,

all the lights go down.


Photograph strobes
carve their bodies from the dark,

break and pucker of serge and wool
on arms boxed

to catch the blows,

nightsticks straight
from the flex of uniform sleeves

coats taut between the blades,
white helmets' gleam

and above, a heaven of breath
and steam and smoke from which

dark feathers
then spreads

coughing dense night air
at the cusp of the lens

carving through the barrel

to spread the shutters blind


No one sees the congregation scatter

or the troopers chase

to the river or church
or blockhouse cafe

No one sees the bottles flying
as they climb the stairs

or the bricks in the troopers' affidavits

No one sees the clubs

or the thousand starlings
smoking at the lights

No one sees the old woman
swinging Cokes on the troopers' heads

or falling from their sticks

or the old man lunging in their affidavits
or falling

or the young one, the grandson
step in to catch the blow

or take the gun


They see the flash and kickback

Jimmie Lee folding in the glass

of the cigarette machine

tube light halo, electric hum

Smoke feathers

singing glass

the grandfather's face arriving, arriving

in the intermittent light.


I sat in the front row transfixed. Afterwards, as panel members were packing up their notes, gathering up their books, moving on to whatever followed, I made my way to the table where York sat. He didn't move right away, and as I walked toward him, he looked at me--the only panel member to do so. He spoke first, and thanked me for being such a good listener, for giving him a focal point--my words, not his--I don't remember exactly what he said. What I do remember is that he gave an inordinate amount of time and energy to someone who didn't register on the poetic richter scale. But it didn't matter to him. He made me feel as if he were willing to give himself to the moment as much as any moment in history, and to me as much as to any unknown voice. That's why he was there.

And now the table is turned. I add my one voice to the multitudes who call attention to his. In A Murmuration of Starlings he is still speaking for those who cannot.

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

Oh my! I am weeping at the loss of those saints and the saint who honored them so by listening to them so carefully. As I read this morning, I have just finished reading a note from the heart of a friend charged with finding words to say at the funeral Sunday afternoon of a beloved schoolteacher killed in a car crash on Wednesday. "I have to find a way to let her do the talking." he says. It is they way of poets and - though too few know this - of the best preachers. Listening closely, carefully, lovingly, painfully, and then letting another voice speak through your words. Ric Masten's brilliant poem Wailing Wall is one of my favorite works of that art. I can't seem to find it all right now, but I have these lines near at hand:

i will be your wailing wall man friend
lean on me and rail against the insanity
of life / death
beat on me -- weep on me
old fighter
i will hold you up as you would me

later i will stack these words one upon the other
like stones lifted from my chest
and then fall sobbing against this wall of work

And still later, some other poet will read them or hear them and save them and share them. And oh what would we do without such precious gifts as these? Thank you for giving us Jake's gifts of stacked words that let others' lives do the talking and the listening and the sobbing.